Women in Design who WORKAROUND

A section of the WORKAROUND exhibition

A section of the WORKAROUND exhibition

Originally published on Matters Journal

Defined as a method for overcoming a problem or limitation in a program or system, the term ‘workaround’ generally implies action taken to effect change. But for the curators behind the new WORKAROUND - Women Design Action exhibition at RMIT Design Hub, the practice of a workaround is much more; it is the advocacy and activism tactics of a burgeoning movement of women within the fields of architecture and design.

How do you give space to something invisible? For Kate Rhodes, co-curator of WORKAROUND and curator of RMIT Design Hub, and her co-curators Naomi Stead and Fleur Watson, the development of their new interactive exhibition WORKAROUND began as a question of how to value and consider the unseen (and often undervalued) work of women in design, growing into an exploration of these women’s advocacy and activism within the field of architecture and design.

“We had a situation on our hands,” says Rhodes. “We were interested in looking at women working in design, who have an architecture and design background, but who aren’t building buildings or making objects. How do you make an exhibition about that, when you have room to fill–we didn’t have any stuff.” Instead, Rhodes says, they realised they needed to make an exhibition of the women themselves, transforming the gallery space into a TV studio and making the featured artists “the hosts of a TV show about them”. The fourteen Australian practitioners included in the workshop will each present a critique, conversation, interview, workshop or performance that articulates their strategies and workarounds and reflects on their activist practice - in turn inspiring their audience to do the same.

The idea for WORKAROUND was formed from two separate concepts that were in development from the curators; Stead (who is from the activist collective Parlour and Monash University) had submitted a concept to RMIT Design Hub that investigated how to value and consider unseen work, while Rhodes and Watson were developing an exhibition on the theme of work in design. “The two shows had clear connections and intentions so we combined forces,” say the curators. Over the next 18 months, they collectively developed WORKAROUND as both an online broadcast and a program of live events. “Put simply we wanted to 'exhibit' through the broadcast environment the people doing, discussing and exploring their extraordinary practices rather than 'showing' an extraction or representation of their work,” the curators tell us.

While initially the curators met with both male and female design practitioners, their research became increasingly focused on women architects and women landscape architects who were finding new ways to disrupt and contribute to their traditionally male-dominated fields. After early workshops and perspective from US-based curator and writer Mimi Zeiger, Rhodes, Stead and Watson settled on a clear remit: "...to identify, assemble, create a platform for, and find new connections between a burgeoning movement of women focused on advocacy and activism within an expanded field of architecture." By early 2018, the curators had met with over 50 individuals and groups supporting their intentions for the exhibition, and settled on 14 episodes for the broadcast, each with a lead host or host group.

With the exhibition territory settled, the curators returned again to their initial difficulty of presenting the content in physical form with a solution. “We quickly realised we didn’t have a typical show on our hands but this, perhaps helpfully, is typical for Design Hub!” point out the co-curators. To ‘exhibit’ the practitioners themselves and bring the activist values of the content to life, the curatorial team enlisted the help of a fellow woman in design, Jane Caught from architecture practice SIBLING. Their design divided the exhibition layout into three parts - the broadcast space of the entry corridor, an inverted editing suite where footage from the day’s events are captured and manipulated publicly, and the main gallery space. “Within the main gallery space we were interested in providing a series of platforms for activism broadcast - the literal stage for performance, the conversation pit to exchange ideas, the work table to disseminate ways of doing, the oversized screens for digital output,” says Caught. She points out that the circular format of the modular form of the three components works well for breaking down spatial hierarchies and blurring the idea of an 'audience'–it literally brings audiences into the exhibition they are experiencing, and encourages interaction with the episode hosts.

Just as Rhodes, Stead and Watson created a platform for the individuals and groups to exhibit themselves through their WORKAROUND content, Caught and her team sought to do the same through the physical design of the space. “We were looking for a highly flexible outcome that could facilitate a wide range of activities and spatial formats, allowing each broadcaster to adjust the space to suit their specific needs,” says Caught. To this end, seating in the space is easily moved around, projection screens go up and down, and tables can be relocated to prioritise floor based activities. The spatial design ensures that the practitioners have autonomy not just over what their narrative contains, but how it is presented to the audience.

“...WORKAROUND began as a question of how to value and consider the unseen (and often undervalued) work of women in design...to identify, assemble, create a platform for, and find new connections between a burgeoning movement of women focused on advocacy and activism within an expanded field of architecture.”

The TV broadcast also plays an important role in the overall experience of the exhibition, offering direct engagement with the practitioners in the exhibition for a wider audience. “We can stand in their shoes for a day, ask them questions, query their methods if we choose, find a collaborator in them if that’s what we need, understand more about the bigger picture around working in design or find alternatives for our own career paths if we need them,” say the curators. The broadcast also allows the exhibition to reach beyond the walls of the gallery, drawing a wider audience and stimulating further action.

In taking a notion of a workaround from the unseen to seen, in creating the contextual and practical space for their practitioners to literally and digitally broadcast themselves to their audience, and in connecting each participant within the WORKAROUND umbrella to share their experiences, the exhibition is poised to foster a new community of activist practices. The curators hope WORKAROUND will articulate pathways for young architects and designers to feel empowered about their own emerging activist practices, recounting the immediate connections and relationships formed from bringing the episode hosts together in June. “In our research for the exhibition, it became clear to us that the path to an activist practice is diverse. Many described that, at times, they had felt out on a limb or with some level self-doubt by choosing to 'work around' conventional modes of practice yet through their commitment they had built upon their experiences and found pathways to articulate their position and the agency of their significant contribution to design activism.” While these pathways may have been unseen or underexplored in the past, WORKAROUND brings them to the fore, creating the grounds for a more connected and supported activist community.